Mobile-XL: SMS Browser for Mobiles in Africa

In the summer of 2008, US-based Mobile-XL launched their new SMS browser in Kenya. I had been in touch with their CEO Guy Kamgaing-Kouam, via email, but we had never had always just missed each other in Kenya or in the US. Since then, I’ve been watching them closely, and seeing how their business unfolds as they target African nations with their new service. They are starting with Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, but are aiming to roll out in South Africa, Cameroon and Nigeria soon.

Mobile-XL

Big, Strong Moves

It seems that Mobile-XL is doing well. In July, they partnered with Fonexpress, a Kenyan retail chain of ICT products and services to provide content and services. In November, they announced that mobile pioneer Alieu Conteh, Chairman of Vodacom Congo, has agreed to join the Board of Advisors.

Today, they have announced their biggest news, a collaboration with Nokia to start embedding its SMS based browser in mobile phones for selected African markets. This, of course, is the big prize for any mobile application developer: the chance to have your application bundled with the base-level software available out-of-the-box.

“As early as March 2009, a select series of Nokia handsets shipping into Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania will be equipped with the firms XLBrowser software service.”

The XLBrowser, and why it matters

Guy, and his team at Mobile-XL, have built the XLBrowser. This is a J2ME (Java) application that utilizes SMS to provide instant access to global and local information using almost any mobile phone. The XLBrowser’s interface allows users to select and instantly receive information, news, sports, finance, entertainment, games, music, and more. Costs appear to be slightly more expensive than a basic SMS message (10/= shillings in Kenya).

Though the XLBrowser is a walled garden (content-wise), it is still particularly innovative as they use SMS to send data. This type of technology is perfect for places in rural Africa where WAP, GPRS and internet connections are limited at best. This is the beginnings of something very interesting.

Many make claims to “bridging the digital divide”, as do the people at Mobile-XL. But, in this case I think they’re right. It’s not just another application that relies on strong mobile data connections, but one that can work off the very lowest common denominator – which is what is needed in much of Africa today.

Their next big trick will be to bring on as many new subscribers as possible, and that only happens when there is real value added through the use of the application. With strong content offerings, ones that people in Africa truly care about, they could very well pull this off.

Personally, I’d love to see more businesses take on this challenge. Using SMS to connect Africans to the rest of the web, and the world.

18 thoughts on “Mobile-XL: SMS Browser for Mobiles in Africa

  1. I love your blog. I also grew up in Kenya and consider myself a white african. Your blog is extremely interesting for anyone in any way concerned about economic growth in African and particularly East Africa. The telephony sector has grown in leaps and bounds since privatisation and your ideas are very interesting as to how it can further expand.

  2. This is very very bad news. The more people promote SMS based services like this, the longer it takes to get rid of that massively inefficient and telco controlled medium.
    Just do the math: how much does one wikipedia page cost to SMS. Probably several USD.
    The telcos will love this. The african people probably, too. Because they dont know better. In the meantime, they are ripped off.
    (BTW, there is full coverage GPRS in Uganda. The charges are just extremely high, because the telcos calculate the international traffic pricing, which will stay high, unless the magic fiber arrives.)

  3. @Reinier – That’s a solid argument, and I think as data plans become available in other rural areas, then we’ll see the need for services like the XLBrowser decline. The other problem is that, as you know in Uganda, the GPRS and WAP services are horribly unreliable even in Kampala. SMS isn’t nearly as bad.

    However, it should be noted that their service is a Java based app, so switching from doing pure SMS connections to doing stuff via normal data shouldn’t be that hard for them. Either way, making their service an SMS connection still is rather innovative.

  4. There are dataplans in rural areas. MTN guarantees 96% coverage in their terms.

    The product is so successful that they put a cap on it last week, of 2.4GB per month (for fixed subscriptions). I dont even want to calculate how many SMS that is. I will for your previous post:

    Your reply, 589 characters in length, incl the header, divided by 163 is at least 4 SMSs + 1 for the request. Which MTN will charge you 220UGX for (the info tariff ‘slightly more expensive than a normal SMS) per SMS, is 1100UGX.

    For GPRS data MTN will charge 25UGX for 1Kb, which is 1000 characters of ASCII text.

    As this is a J2ME application, the alternative, Opera Mini, will run on the same types of phones, and, with images shut off, will give you about 44 times more value for money. (and 411 bonus characters to waste on the http request)

    The whole focus on SMS based services in Africa is a model that will never ever scale, and will only keep the continent back.

    sources:
    MTN SMS tariffs
    MTN Internet Terms & Conditions

  5. (i reckon they used some hefty compression in the SMSs, this will lower the costs, and definitly increase the geeky coolness of the app. Http does provision for compression as well.
    I focussed on costs, so far, and did not mention the other big nono of this app, which is that it lets the provider lock you in to the content they wish you to see. A bit like AOLor MSN network in 1995. We are passed that model, hopefully. Http does not have that limitation. You can see anywhere on the web that you want. That to me, is valuable enough. Especially in Africa.)

  6. @Reinier – I’m here laughing, because I’m in complete agreement on that last comment. As much as I geek out over the communication via SMS here, I really don’t like walled gardens at all, and I think that might be the Achilles heel of this app in the end. I don’t want to see an AOL/MSN for Africa’s mobile users, it’s crippling at best.

    Okay, now to the comment preceding that – on data availability and cost. Sometimes you need a bridging technology to take you from one type to the next. For one, a mobile operator can claim 96% coverage, which very well might be technically true, but up-time in these areas might be fairly non-existent and it might be impossible to actually get connected to it on a pre-paid plan (which is what most people in rural Africa can afford to do). I’m just speaking from my experience in Kenya when in rural areas. Uganda might be much better off than Kenya though – how is the uptime and availability of the MTN services via pre-paid service?

    The truth is, if you can get into a pre-paid data plan, then the cost per byte is a lot cheaper than an SMS message. Sometimes by magnitudes of 1ox or more. So yes, it’s the way to go if you can get it and can afford it.

    In the end, if users find more value in using the available GPRS offerings over the XLBrowser in places like Uganda, then they will. That will win out, and that’s all the better for the ecosystem as a whole. In the meantime, we can only wait and see what happens.

  7. laughing is very healthy!

    my calculations are based on real prices, pre-paid. so the 44x is not too far off. I also heard some pretty good stories about GPRS connectivity outside of Kampala. Kampala itself is worse, because of local overload. Overload is good, it means there is room & money for improvement.

    I am of the opinion that far too much development money is currently poored into SMS projects. If J2ME is the new standard in commercial land, then why not push the new Mozilla mobile browser for example, and make sure that it meets African standards (like, lots of compression, localisation, translation)
    That, plus some proper education towards webdevelopers for creating mobile websites, and suddenly the ecosystem for reaching out into the sticks becomes so much bigger than with the few SMS apps, that either suck up development money, or worse, users money.

    I am just waiting until UNICEF, Grameen, Oxfam and whoknows have decided that SMS is not sexy anymore. Cant last long, i’m sure.

    (and you, in the west, keep on throwing those old J2ME enabled phones away. They really help here!)

  8. An interesting discussion!

    We did a simple trial late last year to explore the possibilities of J2ME applications for instant messaging in Uganda. While it is easy to come across pricing data from the networks, it is much harder to access data on numbers of J2ME enabled handsets (and rate of increase) and availability of data services in Uganda or Kenya.

    While things worked fine in Kampala, we found outside of the city the service was a lot less reliable. Fring and MXiT both lost the connection several times (on my pre-paid MTN SIM) and spent a lot of time re-connecting to the network. This resulted in much higher data usage (and hence cost) than when in Kampala.

    Without more data it is hard to understand what type of investment is needed for J2ME applications to be useful in Uganda or Kenya. We now plan to do a larger trial with users across the country. Combined with a simple survey of the handsets used by people in our partner NGOs, we may then be in a position to look at a larger project.

    However, my feeling it that for now, this is something more of use to development professionals. It seems a while before this will be a viable channel for communicating with the general public (particularly those at the bottom of the pyramid).

  9. @Rob – Very interesting to hear about your tests in Uganda. It leads me back to my initial premise, that this type of SMS-connection service might be a good bridge builder as we wait for better data networks to grow past the major metropolitan areas.

  10. Its amazing to see that the market is not saturated yet in Africa. Lots of opportunities to develop the continent and its people and also make money for yourself.

  11. Geoffrey says:

    The idea of accessing via sms is way too innovative but why keep thd browser walled?I simply deleted it the moment I realised you control what I read.

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